What’s Your Berlin? Lessons from Airbnb

What's your Berlin: Lessons from Airbnb

Last month I had the opportunity to attend the Zenith Digital Marketing Conference in Duluth, Minnesota. The event was organized like champs by the team from AimClear in conjunction with the Duluth Chamber of Commerce. I got to speak about SEO site audits, sharing my process and tips on the periodic analysis that all sites should undergo to drive ongoing strategies.

It was a blast, but I’m not going to write about my session. Instead, it was when I was done speaking, after the nerves had subsided and I got to settle into the afternoon keynote, that I got to listen to something that I would find myself mulling over for the rest of my trip home.

I walked away saying, “We need to find our Berlin.”

What in the world does that mean?

In his keynote, Dennis Goedegebuure, VP of Growth & SEO at Fanatics, talked about the Content Brand Pyramid. It’s a philosophy on developing content in the way that you build a pyramid. Creating a base, building on that base and then rising to a point.

The strategy is a solid one, with a clear visual frame of reference. But it was when he reached the highest level of the pyramid and discussed the work of Airbnb on a campaign devoted to a video called “Wall and Chain” that my own wheels started spinning.

The Idea

The basic plot of the brief animated short revolves around the rental of an Airbnb property that brought together two individuals who had each served as guards on the opposite side of the Berlin wall. And it went viral. But why? The initiative is ingenious in its simplicity – they told a real story well.

Airbnb took a real a use case with human interest and shared that as part of their brand message.

So why can’t we all do that?

We can all say that maybe our products or services don’t lend themselves to great storytelling or emotionally evocative subject matter. But that’s only true on the surface. Every business ties back to the core aspects of humanity that unite us all.

Things like love, loss, joy, growth and family are connective threads between every person regardless of where we live or what we do. Airbnb was simply savvy enough to spot a genuine human interest story when they saw it.

We can learn from them in that regard. We can all remain open to evaluating things that go beyond the data. We become so obsessed with metrics, technology and conversions that sometimes we forget to think past the point of sale and whether or not there’s something there that we can build on. Something we can build an entire marketing campaign around because it’s real, because it reminds us of why we started doing this in the first place.

Maybe you got into marketing because you wanted to help small businesses succeed. Have you? What does that mean beyond an impressive traffic graph? Is someone now, living his dream, supporting his family or giving back to the community because of what you were able to help them achieve?

Maybe your HVAC Company has been growing consistently because of digital marketing. But remember that time you made a house call at 2 a.m.? That family got to stay in their home that night because of you.

No matter what we do for a living, we all impact each other. Those stories deserve to be told. But first we must be able to identify them, and then do them justice in their telling.

The Execution

Another important aspect of the success of Wall and Chain was the way in which they scripted and created their video. Airbnb spared no expense on the production of their video, and put a great deal of thought in to the imagery and symbolism that went with it. Now, granted, we don’t all have the budget for that kind of thing.

Fun fact that I recently learned at an Overit Lunch & Learn: there are 24-30 frames in every second of animation.

The amount of effort that goes into something like that can become costly. Fortunately, I’m not convinced that’s the only reason it worked.

We’ve all seen stories where a tweet or a Facebook post telling a story became a sensation. Even a simple Post-it note can be shared thousands of times if it has an honest and universal resonance.

For Airbnb, it helps that it was a beautifully rendered video, but it’s the way the story is treated, with tenderness and honesty, that makes it so successful. The medium matters less than your commitment to allowing the sincerity of the message shine through.

The Timing

So perhaps the most brilliant and crucial piece of making all of this work was how it was timed.

Timing is what? Oh yeah, everything.

The story itself had been covered by their PR team prior to the creation and release of the video. They launched the video to correlate with the anniversary of the demolition of the Berlin Wall. The event in and of itself was fraught with emotional weight. This wall was the literal and symbolic division of a country that was a major component of the end of one of the world’s greatest tragedies. In the midst of this enormous and globally salient event, they told a small, quiet story that was relevant and meaningful. It encapsulated the pain the Wall represented, and the beauty of how far we’ve come.

Not all of us are going to be able to find connections with epic international events, nor should we often capitalize on tragedy for our own marketing benefit. But I don’t think we need to. Every month of the year is dedicated to the cause. There are awareness days and weeks for practically everything from donuts (Friday, June 3) to garbage man appreciation.

So we can’t all connect to the Berlin wall per se, but all around us there are opportunities to acknowledge great things, people and events.

It’s also smart to use basic principles of planning. Start with plenty of advance time so you’re not rushing at the end. Avoid timing something where it has inherent competition like the holidays or the back-to-school rush.

Inevitably, there will be something else going on, and while you can’t avoid that you can try your best to make sure you aren’t setting yourself up to be lost in the noise.

Follow the Thread

It’s part luck, part genius and part science that makes a lot of these ideas work. But the successful examples give us something to study and dissect. This is the story I thought about for the duration of my return flight. We’ve all made connections over the years. We’ve all had a butterfly effect on the world around us in our day to day business, but how often do we stop to see how far the ripples have reached? Probably not often enough. But I believe if we’re ready to look, we’ll all find we have a story like a chance encounter in Berlin.

We just need to find it.